We’re born with an innate preference for the taste of sweet foods. Right from birth our brains know that things that taste sweet contain energy, so we are prone to choose sweet-tasting foods over others in order to survive. In the food-scarce environment our ancestors lived in, people needed these instincts to stay alive. In today’s modern world this innate preference for sweets has become rather problematic. Sugar is found in massive quantities in our food supply, and is readily available to us 24/7. There are pitifully few places we find ourselves these days where there is not quick access to sugar right at our fingertips. Many groups point to sugar as the #1 cause of our society’s weight gain and health issues. However, some have taken things one step further and blame sugar (both natural sugars and added ones) as the root cause of ALL that ails us- dementia, cancer, heart disease, etc, etc, etc. Calling it toxic, or “white poison” they claim it’s not only that we prefer sugar, we’re actually addicted to it…
So what’s the real story? Is sugar really as addictive as heroin? As toxic as cyanide? Or is it simply another substance in our food that merely just…is? Something that is neither inherently good or bad, yet easily misunderstood?
Is sugar really as addictive as heroin?
Let’s start with the bad news…
It’s pretty safe to say in North America we eat way too much sugar. The Canadian Community Health Survey in 2004 found that on average, we’re consuming about 26 tsp of added sugars per day. Teen boys had the highest level of consumption at 41 tsp per day. FORTY ONE TEASPOONS.
Added sugars are classified as sugars that are added to foods during processing (pop, slurpees, sweet cereals, desserts, muffins), or by us during cooking/food prep (such as adding sugar to our coffee). Honey, brown sugar, maple or rice syrup, or agave nectar all count as added sugars. These do not include sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, milk, or grains and starches. Remember though that whether we get our sugar from natural or added sources it is all digested and metabolized the same way. The real difference is that added sugars are often found in foods that have little to no other nutrition- such as pop or coffee beverages.
It’s important to note that this is self-reported data (meaning the subjects answered a survey about their dietary habits), and that the data is represented as an average. This is good to remember because we do tend to fudge things a bit when it comes to self-reported dietary intake (we might “forget” about little extra treats here and there, or underestimate how much sugar goes into our morning coffee). These values are also an average, meaning some people are taking in MORE than 26 tsp per day. Each of those tsp of sugar provides us with 16 calories. This may not seem like a large number, but if you add up that 26 tsp average, it’s over 400 calories per day we’re consuming that has ZERO other nutritional value.
1 tsp of added sugar is equal to 16 calories. Our average added sugar consumption of 26 tsp per day is over 400 calories
How much sugar should we be eating?
There are a few different guidelines for upper limits on sugar, but my personal favorite comes from the American Heart Association. I like them because they have the lowest target, and the amount is provided in grams per day (which is easily converted to teaspoons per day). Other associations have guidelines on added sugars in terms of percentage of calories, or total calories per day, but that is not how sugar is displayed to us on food labels or nutrition facts panels. We see sugar listed in grams, so we should know what our limits are in the same language- grams.
The maximum added sugars per day for women is 6tsp, which equals 24 grams, or 96 calories. For men (who it is assumed should eat more calories than women therefore can accommodate more added sugars in their diets) the limit is 9tsp per day, or 36 grams, which equals 144 calories.
To put this into perspective, one can of pop contains a little less than 10 tsp of sugar. The nutrition facts on a can of pop is listed at 150. There is zero protein and zero fat, which means that 100% of the calories are from sugar. 150 calories divided by 4 gives us 37.5 grams of added sugars, which is equal to 9.3 tsp. This is more than the daily upper limit for both men AND women.
Does sugar make us gain weight?
Yes and no. Sugar can lead to weight gain due to excessive calories being consumed. The same would apply to an over-consumption of calories from fat, protein, starches, or alcohol. Weight gain and loss can be a complex issue, but at the end of the day if we are eating more calories than our body can use for energy, we will gain weight. End of story.
Given that a single can of pop contains more than our limit for added sugars in a day, it is arguably easier to eat too much sugar than it is to eat too much fat or protein. Mainly because our intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is SO excessive, yet those calories do not fill us up. Sugar on it’s own does not give us the same satiety signals that high protein, high fat, or high fibre foods do, particularly when it comes in liquid form in beverages. This means that we can easily take in several hundred extra calories from liquid sugar in a day (such as in pop or juice), without it decreasing our intake of other foods. Sugar is rapidly digested and absorbed in our gastrointestinal tract (the gut). Protein and fat tend to be more “filling”, because they take a longer time to be broken down by our bodies, but if we are still eating more calories than we need, it does not matter where they come from- we will gain weight. Fibre (like from fruits, vegetables, or whole grains) on the other hand slows down digestion as well but does not provide us with any calories. Another great reason to eat your fruits and veggies!
The weight we can gain as a result of eating too many extra calories (from sugar or not) is what can truly cause the ill-effects of high sugar intake. For example Type 2 Diabetes does not occur because a person has simply consumed too much sugar, often it is because the extra weight they carry is causing insulin resistance in their bodies. This paired with physical inactivity is the problem, not just the sugar itself.
Is sugar as addictive as heroin?
For context, here is the short definition of addiction from the American Society of Addictive Medicine:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
I’m no expert on the topic of addictions so please bear in mind that the following section is simply my opinion and interpretation of this issue:
The topic of sugar as an addictive substance is certainly an interesting and controversial one. It’s true that consumption of sugar triggers the “reward” centers in the brain, the same way many addictive substances do. HOWEVER, these are just the “happy” chemicals that the brain emits, and they can actually come from a large number of things. Yes, sugar or street drugs but also exercise, sunshine, and spending time with people who make you happy. So stating that sugar is as addictive as heroin isn’t completely untrue, but is really flawed logic. That being said though, addictions are highly psychological and do not always involve a specific drug/food trigger. Gambling addiction, shopping addiction, or sex addiction are all true to life issues, so the idea of a sugar or food addiction is not unreasonable to me. Many clients I work with report using food as a coping strategy to deal with stress, boredom, or sadness. I’ve specified food here vs pinning these issues directly on simple sugars. Simple sugars taste good, and are rapidly digested and absorbed by our bodies, but sugars or starches in any form (or high fat foods for that matter), also tend to be common trigger foods for people who struggle with overeating.
Now, things become challenging when we discuss how to manage food addictions in the classic sense of addictions management. An individual who struggles with substance abuse, or a gambling addiction is counseled to stop the behaviour completely. When it comes to food though, we cannot just stop eating. Everyday we need to make many choices surrounding what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. This makes the management of food addiction or binge eating somewhat different than typical addictions treatment. Getting to the root cause of the issues surrounding food is the key- simply counseling people to completely stop eating sugar is not reasonable or helpful.
Does sugar cause cancer or make tumour growth worse?
No. There is no evidence to suggest that sugar itself causes cancer, or increases the growth of tumors.
There have been a few studies done on mice (NOT HUMANS!) that looked at the effects of a low carbohydrate diet on a specific type of brain tumor growth. They have found that a slowing in tumor growth occurs with a low-carb diet, however overall calories need to be restricted in order for it to be effective (you can read more here and here). These dietary interventions were also not curative, all of the test subjects did still die from their tumors. Using these findings to make dietary recommendations for individuals diagnosed with cancer is completely premature and irresponsible.
For real people undergoing cancer treatments, a calorie restricted diet is not recommended. This is because cancer often increases our nutrient needs, and the surgical and medication interventions these patients undergo creates additional stress on the body. For healing from surgery and handling side effects of chemotherapy, patients should be encouraged to eat foods that they can tolerate and that are energy-dense rather than try to follow a very restrictive diet that has no proven benefit. When we deny these patients the energy and nutrients they need we do more harm than good.
So, the bottom line is eating sugar is not toxic nor harmful to our health when we consume it in reasonable quantities. We generally consume significantly more sugar than our bodies’ actually need, which can lead to excess weight gain and poor health. However if we eat more of anything than our bodies’ need the effect is the same- an increase in weight and the health risks that accompany that.
So, what can we do to reduce the added sugars in our diets?
1. Look at the big picture. What sweet things can you cut back on, and what can you not live without? Ask for half the sugar or a smaller sized sugar shot when you get a takeout coffee. Avoid pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Aim to stay below the added sugar limits (6 tsp per day for women, 9 tsp per day for men).
2. Watch for sneaky added sugars. Breakfast cereals, flavoured yogurts, instant oatmeal, restaurant/takeout foods, and coffee beverages are all significant contributors of added sugars that we often don’t think of.
3. Get more of your sugars from natural sources. Eat whole fruits and vegetables instead of juices, choose whole grains instead of refined ones, and sweeten things like yogurt or oatmeal with fruit instead of added sugars.
4. Remember that total calories matter more than how much sugar a person is eating. A balanced diet includes enough protein, fibre, fats, vitamins, minerals, AND sugars (carbohydrates). If we’re overeating in one area we’re likely not getting enough of something else. A common sense approach to nutrition is the best way to stay healthy!
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